A University of Michigan student has officially changed his personal pronoun to “His Majesty.”
The student, who is politically conservative, did so to call attention to and ridicule the university policy which allows students to select their own designated personal pronouns.
A personal pronoun is the term others use to refer to you when they don’t use your name: he, she, her, him, they, them, etc. The English language doesn’t offer a gender-neutral singular pronoun other than “it,” but we generally do not use the objectifying term “it” to refer to people.
Most of us are assigned a sex at birth — male or female — and we grow into the corresponding gender identity that matches our sex. That gender binary dominates our western social structure and is instilled in us from birth.
From the moment the doctors told my mom “It’s a girl,” I began to identify as a woman. It’s a privilege that I’ve never felt the categories of “man” and “woman” constrain me in any way. I embrace my womanhood. I am attracted to men.
But that’s not so for all Americans.
Society viewed Caitlyn Jenner as the all-American masculine ideal until she publicly came out as a transwoman. And some people don’t feel like they belong to either gender at all. The “norm” of binary classification doesn’t account for people who are transgender, intergender, genderqueer, agender, or genderfluid.
As an educator, I have students of all backgrounds in my classes. And I’ve learned it’s not wise to make assumptions about my students. It’s not my business who’s questioning their gender or sexual orientation, or who grew up poor, or who has a mental illness — but all of those situations and more may be going on in my students’ lives.
They’re all my students. I want to make our classroom a comfortable environment for learning, and that includes referring to them by the personal pronoun they identify with.
His Majesty, at the University of Michigan, is attempting to show that students who change their pronouns are doing so arbitrarily, with no basis in reality.
His Majesty is likely a straight white man. If so, he’s probably never had to deal with misogyny, homophobia, or racism. He’s likely never had to act a role prescribed by society as masculine even though it didn’t fit the person he knew himself to be.
Often it’s people like him — those in the most privileged demographics of our society — who balk at “political correctness.”
It’s silly, they may think, even arbitrary, as His Majesty contends. Or it’s an annoying way that people try to police the behavior of others for no good reason.
But political correctness is not an end in itself. There are real harms inflicted upon those whose identities are erased by society. And they start with homo and transphobic jokes, language, or publicity stunts — calling yourself “His Majesty,” for example — at the expense of transgender and genderqueer people.
Those who oppose “political correctness” are simply trying to remain at the top of an unjust society and shield themselves from their own intolerance.
Preferred personal pronouns help to ensure that already marginalized groups are not excluded and recognize the real pain that insensitivity causes. And while you may not personally understand the life experiences of someone very different from you, that doesn’t mean you can’t be kind to them.
In short, another phrase for “political correctness” is “not being a jerk,” and the University of Michigan is taking the right steps in helping to foster a safe learning environment for every student.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It." Distributed by OtherWords.org.